by Rabbi Wendy Spears
Christianity and Islam have their roots in Judaism, but they are not variants of Judaism. Despite its name and claims to the contrary, Jews for Jesus is a Christian organization. Their population is composed of those who used to be Jewish before making a break with Judaism by accepting Jesus as their messiah. Their goals and techniques for proselytizing are the same ones that Christian missionaries have used for centuries. I met their official representatives in mid-April at the Christian Missionaries Training Association (which I happened upon by chance while I was attending another convention at the same venue), not at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention nor at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations.
When I decided to become a rabbi 33 years ago, I never imagined that it would be necessary for me to clarify that Jews don’t believe that Jesus is our messiah or the son of God. Neither are we bound in obedience to Allah through the teachings of Muhammed. It is dishonest and disrespectful to Muslims, Christians, and Jews to claim that the three Western religions are the same. This isn’t just my opinion; it is the consistent position of all three religious traditions.
I’ve spent the majority of my rabbinate working with interfaith couples and families to introduce them to the resources of the Jewish community. If someone is not already an involved communal member, it is difficult to find those resources. The term ‘interfaith’ is confusing because it means different things to different people. For the American generation of the 1950’s and 60’s, interfaith meant Protestants, Catholics, and Jews finding ways to co-exist alongside each other and cooperate where there were shared goals. Today, for Jews for Jesus and other organizations which don’t advocate for Judaism exclusively, it often means practicing two or more religions in a home. When I (and the Union for Reform Judaism as well as my fellow rabbis, cantors, educators, and other Jewish professionals) meet couples and families who identify themselves as ‘interfaith,’ we choose this term to mean that one of the adults is Jewish and the other isn’t. I don’t mean the syncretism of ‘being both,’ a combining together of various theologies, rituals, and holidays that don’t fit into any recognized system or practice. I am liberal and open-minded to a variety of points of view, but not so much so that my brain falls out. Being Jewish in America, where the majority of the population isn’t Jewish, is more of an effort than being Christian. It is a worthwhile effort for Jews in living a good life.
Most often, the adult who isn’t Jewish in a couple or family is open to living a Jewish life with his/her partner and isn’t committed to another religious practice. I provide Jewish experiences so folks get a taste of Judaism and can begin planning their life vision together. In my work reaching couples and families who aren’t official members of the Jewish community, I present some of the beauty and wisdom of Judaism to demonstrate how it can provide a foundation for a meaningful life. I guide them in finding a synagogue that will be their home community, where they can be supported in times of challenge and sorrow and celebrated in times of joy.
There have been a few couples over the years who have initially said they wanted to ‘be both.’ I recognize that people value their relationships and are willing to make compromises to protect those relationships. Choosing both or none seems less painful than making a choice for a lead religion in the family. They usually haven’t really discussed what they mean by ‘being both.’ Most are minimally educated in the religious tradition of their respective families. It is my responsibility to them, both as a rabbi and as a Jew committed to Judaism, to advocate for why it is good to live a Jewish life. I am able to help the Jewish person articulate why Judaism is important for their life together. Sometimes, after listening to a couple talk about themselves, I encourage them to visit with a minister, priest, or imam, as is appropriate, to help them find the path that will work best for them. It is also my responsibility to help couples and families wrestle with the hard questions, preferably before their children come along.
The reluctance to advocate for one family religion seems to come from a place of fear — fear that an honest discussion about values and beliefs might reveal irreconcilable differences. This is a possibility. But not having this discussion is like waiting for a time bomb to go off in the relationship, which can cause irreparable damage. Marriages need honesty and trust as well as shared values and rituals to sustain them over the long term. It is better to have discussions about religion and everything else that is important early on to minimize conflict, discord, and unhappiness. Judaism offers a particular worldview that is complete in and of itself, providing meaning and purpose in living a good life. It doesn’t need to be enhanced by rituals or holidays from other religious traditions.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.